John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2010

John Howell Sr.

BP spill turns focus on century of abuses to Gulf 

Regardless of the outcome of the BP oil contamination in the Gulf — whether the effect is as catastrophic as the most ardent environmentalist would have us believe or the minimum impact that BP and its fellow travelers have tried to convince us — the real story is that Louisiana has been the willing partner with big oil’s rape of the marsh and coastal lands in that state for over a century.

There’s just been too much money to be made to let the subtlety of environmental concerns get in the way.

A major segment of coastal economy has been built around the infrastructure needed to get the oil out and at any cost. The BP oil spill has made us aware of what advocates for the preservation of the delicate ecology of the marshes, shores and Gulf waters have been trying to tell us all along: it is an extremely fragile ecosystem. Handle it carelessly at your peril, peril in the form of threatening an important food chain with many humans at its top, peril in the form of storms wreaking havoc farther inland because the protective barrier has been carved up, channeled and eroded into the Gulf.

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And while Louisiana can be faulted for having so comfortably ridden in Big Oil’s back pocket for 100 years, most of the rest of the country shares blame for what comes down the Mississippi River. Anything and everything has been flushed into the watershed that drains the middle two-thirds of the country down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf.

The result is a dead zone in the Gulf where the oxygen has been so depleted that few fish can survive. The dead zone was discovered in the 1970s and has been growing for years, fed primarily by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the fertilizers applied to crops of the south and Midwest.

There’s more, but neither space nor sufficient expertise to unwind here this conundrum we now face — an ocean so big and a river so mighty that they absorbed abuse and misuse until we took them for granted. Now that we’ve discovered how fragile they can be, how do we back out of the circuitous route that got us here?